A group of conditions that affects the body’s connective tissue, making it hard and thick. Connective tissue such as cartilage supports and binds skin and internal organs throughout the body.

Scleroderma is classified into two main types — localized and systemic. Localized scleroderma typically affects only skin tissues, causing the skin to become hard and thick, without affecting other major organs. Systemic scleroderma affects not only the skin, but also blood vessels and other internal organs, causing such diverse symptoms as Raynaud’s phenomenon (loss of blood supply to the extremities, especially the fingers); pain, stiffness, and swelling of the joints; dental problems such as tooth decay; gastrointestinal problems such as heartburn, trouble swallowing, abdominal bloating, constipation, or diarrhea; lung failure or scarring of the lung tissue; heart problems such as swelling or scarring of the heart muscle; and kidney failure.

Doctors diagnose scleroderma based on the patient’s medical history, a physical exam, various lab tests, and a biopsy of the skin. There is no cure for scleroderma, but its symptoms can be managed or at least partially alleviated. The health-care team, which may include a rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in arthritis-type diseases) may refer the patient to other specialistis to treat individual symptoms.

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